This Palestinian story is taken from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales and begins with an old woman who, wisely as it turns out, has never married. She lives alone, looking after herself. One day while she’s making bread she leaves her loaf to rise and goes for a walk down to the sea, where a boat is filling up with travellers. Upon her enquiry, the captain explains that they are going to Beirut. The old woman asks if she can come along and is flatly denied. “Fine,” she retorts. “Go. But if you don’t take me with you, may your boat get stuck and sink!” Sure enough, the boat has not gone far before it starts to sink and they have to turn back to take the old woman aboard.
Once she arrives in Beirut, she sits on a wall waiting to see what will happen next. As night falls a man passes by and invites her home with him. He sounds like a nice person, right? No. Resoundingly, NO. Straight after dinner, he collects a bundle of sticks and starts beating up his wife. When the old woman tries to intervene, he tells her “You don’t know what her sin is. Better stay out of the way!” and continues beating his wife until every stick is broken.
The old woman goes to her afterwards and asks her what sin could possibly justify such mistreatment. “By Allah,” the wife replies, “I’ve done nothing, and it hadn’t even occurred to me. He says it’s because I can’t get pregnant and have children.”
What. The. Hell?
The old woman has a solution: tell him you’re pregnant. Given the other options, the wife takes this advice and the husband does a spectacular 360, giving her whatever she wants as soon as she wants it. Which is all very well, but if he was that abusive when she was childless, how is he going to react when he realises her ‘pregnancy’ is all trickery?
Oh, and just to up the stakes? This is the point when we find out Mr Psycho is the SULTAN.
The two women have a plan, though. The wife commissions a baker to make her a pastry replica of a baby boy, and with the old woman’s help, fakes both labour and birth. No one else is allowed to see the ‘baby’ for seven days. On the seventh day, the women go to the baths and leave the bread doll with an oblivious servant. While they are inside, a dog comes by and grabs the doll, bounding away with the horrified servant in hot pursuit. They pass the house of a man who is famously depressed. He clearly has a black sense of humour because he takes one look at the scene and starts to laugh. Instead of letting the servant return to her mistress empty-handed, the man calls upon an extraordinarily obliging sister who has recently given birth to twin boys, asking her to donate a kid to the worthy cause. The sister’s response is essentially ‘why not?’, and so the sultan’s wife goes home with a real child and a shield against her husband’s brutality.
Her work done, the old woman goes home to see to her bread. Which still hasn’t risen. Possibly she is a better strategist than baker, but she’s also terribly persistent, so she leaves the dough for the second time and returns to the seashore. This time she finds a boat going to Aleppo and bullies the captain into letting her aboard. When she gets there, another man passing by takes her home for dinner. Nice guy? IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. This man is a wife-beater too. Her crime? Admiring the effect of black grapes on a white platter, which he automatically assumed meant she was having an affair with a black-skinned slave. Sanity is evidently not his strong point.
The old woman’s solution is simple. She has the wife serve black grapes on the same white platter and uses the exact same words as admiration for the result. The husband exclaims aloud in surprise that someone else could share the opinion, proving his wife to be guiltless. “Don’t tell me you’ve been beating her just for that!” the old woman cries. Tell it, lady. “What! Have you lost your mind? Look here! Don’t you see how beautiful are these black grapes on this white plate?” The husband acknowledges it is a pleasing aesthetic, and the old woman stays with the couple for another few months, until she remembers her bread and insists on going home. This time, it has risen. She takes it to be baked, and that is…that.
Nothing in this story makes sense to me. I don’t know what the title means. I don’t know how men who worry about an old lady alone on the street at night could think it’s totally okay to brutally abuse their wives, and why the old woman couldn’t help the aforesaid wives to escape before their respective nutcase husbands found some other aspect of the universe to blame them for. The story does not end with a happy ever after, and nor should it; there is no evidence to suggest that anyone but the old woman will remain happy for any duration of time. And what is with her freaky bread?